As far as long-anticipated things go, Nightbird, Kim Alter’s Hayes Valley tasting temple, wasn’t quite at the level of Guns N’ Roses’ decade-in-the-making-album Chinese Democracy, but it came close enough. The Daniel Patterson alumna — a California Culinary Academy grad who’s worked at Coi and Plum, as well as Acquerello, Gary Danko, Manresa, Napa’s now-shuttered Ubuntu, and at NoMI in Chicago — had been planning to open her owl-themed solo debut almost a year ago. In that time, many notable endeavors, from nearby Cadence and Bon Marché to Spaghetti Bros. and Napa’s ninebark, have closed or reformatted.
You’d have to be made of a carbon-steel alloy not to break a sweat opening an ambitious project in the current environment. But even if the owls in Twin Peaks are not what they seem, this one is. Overlooking the strong possibility of permitting snafus, it’s possible the long tease came from Alter’s determination to do it right, because virtually everything at Nightbird is inventive — if at times coyly so. (There’s no menu online, and in the grand tradition of chefs’ personal recipes being little more than ingredient lists, even the paper menus are composed essentially of keywords.)
One has no choice but to order the tasting menu, and while that usually means wine is obligatory, don’t give the cocktail list short shrift. It’s full of owl puns, for one. (The Hoo’s Hoo is a Negroni with sloe gin added. The Owl Pacino is another that I’m certain came straight from Daniel Patterson’s Alta CA during Negroni Week.)
Dinner opened with the required amuse bouche. In our case, it was a soft-poached quail egg over crispy leeks with bearnaise — an etude, like hearing a soprano sing some arpeggios just before the curtain. Two golden cubes of sweet Hawaiian bread, sitting up on their corners like the edible equivalents of the entrance to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, materialized with house-cultured butter; carbs schmarbs, that one’s worth getting seconds.
The first proper course (“tomato, oyster, seaweed”) was a cluster of little heirlooms, like a bunch of balloons, bathing in dashi tomato water topped with blistered sea lettuce and Kusshi oysters from British Columbia. It would seem to have coevolved with its pairing, a light Grenache Rosé from Oregon, as the two mutually enhanced one another’s acidity.
Second up was the cleverest dish. Merely called “Variations of corn,” it was a plating of corn pudding, huitlacoche — aka corn smut, an edible pathogen from Mexico — charred baby corn, and popcorn. In retrospect, it’s almost an obvious idea. But on the plate, it’s beautiful, the baby corn almost like a pair of crossed legs. Every component is distinct in flavor and texture, and in a weird way, it’s the popcorn that does the heavy lifting. By providing an umami note to keep the varying sweetnesses in line, it operates in the way that humble microgreens provide structure to a meat dish. The pairing for that one was an almond-y Chenin Blanc from the coastal Loire Valley with a beeswax quality that came from its comparatively advanced age. (It’s from the 20th century, although just barely.)
The third course was lobster with hearts of palm, chanterelles, and Burgundy truffle, served broken in two like a sweetheart necklace. Like woodier artichokes, hearts of palm typically rate in the bottom quintile of vegetables for me, but these bridged the lobster to the chanterelles by absorbing some essence of each. (Funny how, between it and the baby corn, Alter served back-to-back items that usually come in cans.) Paired with a minerally 2012 Harslevelu that held the oiliness in check, it represented a streak of three-for-three.
The main was rabbit, with peach, summer squash, and vadouvan, a curry that felt like it was on menus everywhere in the spring of 2015 but then receded, and which reappears in a snappy sauce. I want to applaud whatever kitchen minion is tasked with deboning rabbit after rabbit before wrapping it in bacon, a bit of ostentation that shouldn’t go unappreciated. Salty and fatty, but within limits, this one gave off the impression that the active prep time might be rather lengthy.
Dessert came in a couple segments, including a palate-cleansing melon sorbet with a basil granita, an uncharacteristically ordinary middle eight that involved pluots and cocoa nibs, and then a dazzling version of an It’s-It made with bergamot marshmallow ice cream. Out on a high note, with a proletarian undertone (or sorts).
The biggest problem is that Nightbird is expensive. It’s not quite the top tier like Saison, but the tasting menu is $125 and wine pairings are $65, so dinner for two could very easily top $500. If you’re a stickler for the minor points of service at these stratospheric levels, be advised that it’s a smooth ballet here — at one point, someone placed a fork by slipping it under my knife — but the person who presents the check reminded us that the automatic gratuity was 16 percent, something I interpreted as a strong hint to add a discretionary surcharge. (That is such an odious way to go about it, the perfect example of San Francisco passive-aggressiveness circa 2016. Either auto-grat for 18 or 20 percent, or don’t do it at all.)
You could call the 38-seat dining room minimal or conservative, but it might be more accurate to just call it boring. In the low lighting, there’s little to look at and less to see. I suspect this approach is an attempt to square the circle of appealing to hipsters and dowagers alike — or perhaps a paranoid strategy to keep our eyes on our plates — but if Alter et al. are shy about pricey statement art, then I’m sure Etsy or the Urban Air Market has something cool and owl-themed that Nightbird can just stick on the walls. The sentinel owl carved in relief on the front door is spooky and badass, though, the lines of its feathers set at a diagonal to the grain of the wood so that it appears to float before the entryway. And not for nothing, but it’s drafty in there, too.
The classic interior of the Linden Room, an attached seven-seat bar that’s down the corridor and to the right, works a lot better. It’s warmer and Deco-inflected, and there are club chairs in lieu of midnight-blue crushed velvet. But it doesn’t matter much. Go ahead and ignore the walls and stare at your plate. You will leave Nightbird in an Altered state.
Nightbird 330 Gough St. 415-829-7565 or nightbirdrestaurant.com Hours: Tue-Sat, 5:30-10 p.m.; Sun-Mon, closed.